Denny Zeitlin: Blue Phoenix
Denny Zeitlin (piano)
Cathexis & Carnival (Sony 28818)
Composed by Denny Zeitlin.
Recorded: New York, March 6, 1964
Rating: 98/100 (learn more)
Producer John Hammond did so much for the Columbia (now Sony) label, earning them millions by signing acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But when will the label return the favor? It could start by releasing those great jazz piano albums Hammond produced for Columbia, such as Friedrich Gulda's Ineffable (I haven't even seen a copy in 30 years), Adam Makowicz's Adam, and (yes!) the Denny Zeitlin trio dates. Zeitlin's leader debut, Cathexis from 1964, is one of the great jazz albums of the era, and is only available now because a small firm has been able to license the music. The corporate honchos who "own" this "intellectual property" (what a quaint phrase) couldn't care less about making classic jazz music available. I still remember hearing this track on the radio in the mid-1970s when I was a teenager—I immediately drove to a record store to buy a copy. Ah, the LP was already out-of-print and a collector's item. I eventually found Cathexis and all of Zeitlin's other Columbia LPs, although it took several years of hunting and gathering to collect a complete set.
This scintillating track is a good place to start in appreciating the artistry of Dr. Zeitlin (M.D. Johns Hopkins, 1964). Seldom has a jazz pianist done more with a minor blues. Denny plays it slow; Denny plays it fast. He takes it solo; he does it in ensemble. He plays it straight; he changes the chords around. So much here to savor: his walking lines on the piano; his dulcet touch; the thicker-than-a-Manhattan-phone-directory chord voicings; that accelerating passage right after the 10-minute mark where Zeitlin shows that a Steinway can go from zero to 60 in just a few seconds. But my favorite part is the wild "freedom is now" counterpoint that starts infiltrating the music a couple minutes later. Finally we return to the slow minor blues, and it so so so soulful. This is heady stuff indeed. The folks at Columbia may hide this music under a bushel, but no matter where you lock it up, "Blue Phoenix" remains a masterpiece of the jazz piano trio art.
Reviewer: Ted Gioia